Evoking Abraham Lincoln
Barack Obama is not the first president to feel a kinship with Abraham Lincoln. Nixon made at least one midnight visit to the Lincoln Memorial for a talk with the great man's statue. Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring that was made from a lock of Lincoln's hair. Franklin Roosevelt hired Robert Sherwood, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," as his speechwriter.
But Obama has taken the identification with the 16th president to a new level. He began his presidential campaign two years ago in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's home, on the weekend of Lincoln's birthday. And he comes full circle on Thursday, Lincoln's 200th birthday. After speaking in honor of Lincoln at the Capitol Rotunda in the morning ("I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made my own story possible," he said), he journeys back to Springfield to deliver another tribute in the evening.
Of course, the timing of his election with Lincoln's bicentennial, being celebrated Thursday around the United States, is coincidental. Still, one wonders if Obama could over-do the Lincoln analogy. Is it in his political interest to mind-meld with another president? Is he being presumptuous? Is he raising expectations?
Obama's pilgrimages to Springfield are bookends to a period in which he has elevated Lincoln to the status of, well, almost a co-president. He quoted Lincoln throughout the campaign and mimicked the trappings of his inauguration, down to copying the menu for his inaugural lunch from Lincoln's, and having the food served on replicas of the china that Mary Todd Lincoln chose for the White House. On Wednesday, Obama even joined a star-studded celebration for the rededication of Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated.
We talked with several historians and analysts about the political benefits and the risks for Obama in keeping Lincoln so close at hand. Most generally agreed that the advantages outweigh any disadvantages, which explains why he is still doing it.
Mark Salter, a top adviser in Senator John McCain's presidential campaign against Obama, sees no real political harm in Obama's claiming the Lincoln mantle and says that if McCain had been elected, he would probably claim it too.
But he is irked at cable television shows that he says get carried away with the analogies. He sees Lincoln as a rich, textured figure of Shakespearean proportions who had to make extraordinarily difficult decisions, and says few if any other presidents have risen to that level. He says the Lincoln atmospherics have no bearing on the success of Obama's presidency.
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